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Breaking Down Stereotypes

A mom of two young children, Alysha Putnam strives to be a mentor for women of all ages in the PVWIS.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs have historically been labeled careers for men. Those stereotypes, along with unfair treatment of women in STEM, have dissuaded many from beginning or furthering such careers. Luckily, women in STEM are becoming less of an exception, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of many colleges and organizations, women now have more resources than ever to follow their STEM dreams.

Wearing many hats is a common theme for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Parent, teacher, student, and scientist are only a few that Alysha Putnam can name off the top of her head.

When speaking about her journey, she recalls it was a bumpy road, and says several female mentors helped her become the successful woman she is today.

“It was because of various key people — particularly women, actually — who believed in me despite the life challenges that I was going through, that I was able to be successful despite all the chaos,” she said.

One of these women was her master’s adviser, Paulette Peckol, who, as Putnam recalls, was very accepting of the fact that she had two young children and was flexible with her schedule.

Now, as a teaching and research assistant at UMass Amherst in the organismic and evolutionary biology Ph.D. program, she teaches classes while pursuing her research-focused doctoral degree. Throughout this journey through education, Putnam said, she has developed a strong passion for giving back in the same way she was supported.

Unfortunately, women in STEM, including moms like Putnam, have historically faced backlash, oftentimes driving them away from pursuing a career in these fields or even discouraging them from continuing to climb the ladder once they are established. But Putnam and other women in Western Mass. are using their own personal experiences to try to improve the lives of other women who are hoping to make it in these fields.

That’s why Putnam wears yet another hat: co-founder of Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). She and fellow co-founders Melissa Paciulli, Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and Michelle Rame dedicate much of their time to being a support system and connector to women either already in STEM fields or pursuing such a career. Putnam is an alumna of Holyoke Community College (HCC), Paciulli serves as the director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC, and Rame is an HCC graduate and current engineering student at Western New England University.

One of their biggest goals is to squash many of the stereotypes that surround both women in STEM, at community colleges specifically. 

“Stereotypes in STEM as a whole exist,” Paciulli said. “I think it’s important to really recognize that all people belong in STEM — people of all abilities and all races and all sexual orientations. We at PVWIS really believe in inclusivity, and through the community colleges we can provide access to a wide, diverse population for STEM, and we can really tackle that issue of diversity in STEM through our work within the region and within the community colleges.”

And they are not the only women in the area making it their goal to help women pursue and excel in these fields.

Gina Semprebon, founding director for the Center for Excellence in Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University, notes that her own experiences inspired her to start this program to help women pursuing STEM careers.

“I had a really hard time trying to break into the STEM field when I did,” she said. “It was so clear, even as a student for my graduate work, that there was bias. The males were breezing through, and the few women that were in there were not getting the help or support they needed, or were actually being thwarted.”

Fortunately, programs like PVWIS and CEWS are providing access to resources and educational opportunities for these women to follow their passion and climb the STEM ladder.

Turning Experience Into Expertise

When Susanna Swanker walked into the first day of her college internship, the women’s restroom had to be cleaned out for her because it was being used for storage.

Susanne Swanker

At S.I. Group (formerly Schenectady International), she was a chemist working on a pilot project. Aside from the secretary (whom Swanker bonded with very well), she was the only woman in her area. She remembers going to work in a hardhat and jeans while her other friends in accounting or social-services positions were getting dressed in business professional attire.

“It’s a different field, so you have to be willing to do those things,” she said. “I think sometimes maybe that’s a little off-putting or it’s not so attractive for people. But if you love the work, and I think that’s maybe where the challenge is, you get past that.”

Now dean of the School of Business, Arts, and Sciences at American International College, she is working toward refining STEM programs at the university to better fit students’ interests.

Being the only woman in a STEM room is not limited to the workplace. McGinnis-Cavanaugh said it is not unusual for her to be the only woman in the room while she is teaching engineering courses at Springfield Technical Community College.

While the percentage of female faculty in STEM programs at STCC is healthy, she said, the female student population is not so great.

Melissa Paciulli says the events hosted by the PVWIS are intended to make connections and build relationships among fellow STEM women.

Being a woman who went to community college and experienced many of the same struggles her students now face is one of the main reasons why she co-founded PVWIS and continues to teach at STCC.

“I see myself in my students,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says — community colleges still have that stigma attached to them. ‘Oh, you go to a community college, you couldn’t get into a real college,’ that type of thing. That really bothers me because I went to a community college, so that resonates with me in a big way.”

These stigmas, she said, are an issue of equity in the community-college world, and the everyday issues women in STEM often face come back to one word: access.

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

“There should be no difference between the opportunities that men and women have,” McGinnis-Cavanaugh argued. “We kept coming around to the same thing, that our students needed access. That was the word that we kept coming back to. We were trying to think of ways that we could expose them to professional women, to professional situations and professional networks.”

Bay Path’s Leadership Exploration Analysis Development program has similar goals. This 100% online initiative under the CEWS umbrella provides a certificate to early- to mid-career women in STEM fields, giving them the leadership skills they need to advance in their career.

Michele Heyward, founder of PositiveHire and CEO of Heyward Business Consulting, acts as an industry expert for the program, and says this certificate provides women with the tools they need to continue to move up the ladder in their career.

 

From left: Gina Semprebon, Michele Heyward, and Caron Hobin.

“Men are generally promoted based on potential, while women and people of color are promoted based on the proof that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “It is truly essential to have programs like this that are in place, active and engaging for students who are generally going to go out into a workplace where they may be the only one.”

Caron Hobin, vice president of Bay Path, partnered with Semprebon on CEWS and says stereotypes and stigmas faced by women in STEM made it a no-brainer to kick-start the program in 2013.

“I was moved by the statistics that would scream loud and clear that women were just not advancing at the same level as men,” she said. “You’re surrounded by really sharp women, and you look around and say, ‘why is this?’”

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to Million Women Mentors, 75% of STEM workers are male. In addition, only three out of 12 women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field still work in a STEM career 10 years after graduation.

That is why programs and organizations like CEWS and PVWIS exist, and these stigmas are slowly being squashed.

“We see ourselves as being the connecting point of all these different women across the Valley and bringing them together to support each other, to share knowledge, to encourage, to uplift, to make connections, to empower,” Putnam said. “As we interact with our community-college students here in Western Mass., we are seeing incredible women of all ages coming through the community-college system who are very capable and smart and just need the support and encouragement to say, ‘yes, you can do it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Blasting Off

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

Seeing a group of middle-schoolers design, build, and program robots that perform specific, detailed tasks on cue is an impressive sight. But the impact of the FIRST LEGO League, which boasts teams in numerous schools throughout Western Mass., goes far beyond engineering training. It’s also teaching young people communication skills, teamwork, and confidence — all key traits to take into whatever career they choose, whether in the STEM fields or not.

As the robotic rover methodically navigated a landscape of obstacles, it relied on its programming to perform any number of tasks, from extracting core samples to angling a solar array to crossing a crater. If the programming — honed over months of diligent trial and error — failed, so did the robot.

That’s OK, though — this wasn’t a billion-dollar piece of outer-space equipment at stake, but a robot built from LEGO Mindstorm parts, and performing tasks on a colorful, space-themed table. And these weren’t astronauts or NASA engineers performing experiments, but area elementary and middle-school students showing off their prowess at the recent FIRST LEGO League Into Orbit Challenge at Western New England University.

Three dozen teams of students from Agawam, Brookfield, Chicopee, Greenfield, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Northampton, South Hadley, Springfield, West Springfield, Westhampton, and Wilbraham took part in the competition, reflecting a surge in growth for school-based robotics programs.

“It’s more than just the robots. Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

After competing head to head with each other, seven of those teams advanced to a statewide competition in Worcester a week later, and from there, the top teams moved on to championship events this spring.

“It’s all about taking your classroom lessons — the math, the science — and applying them in a real-world situation,” said Dana Henry, a senior mentor for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, who first connected students with robotics in Agawam 18 years ago.

“It’s more than just the robots,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

The FIRST LEGO League challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers. During this year’s space-themed season, teams choose real-world problems to solve and then build, test, and program an autonomous robot using LEGO Mindstorms technology to solve a set of missions.

Last months’s event, the Agawam Qualifier, is in its 11th year, moving to WNEU this season after outgrowing its previous space at Agawam Junior High School, Henry noted.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

“We have four programs in Agawam, and we help other teams, at other school systems in the area, get up and running,” Henry said of his role with FIRST. “Western New England came in with the facility and some resources, and they are working with a couple of local teams themselves. It’s been a pretty great ride so far.”

Suleyman Demirhan, a science teacher at Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee who oversees that school’s robotics club, explained that the faculty coach’s role is to teach students the basics of building and programming the robot — and researching issues as they arise — but it’s important for students to learn how to accomplish their goals with minimal hand-holding.

“They learn a specific topic for their project, and how to design a robot and program it. The coach is there just to guide them, to provide the right materials and supplies for learning the robotics, and then we get to see their progress. We’re teaching them how to solve problems. It’s a learning process,” Demirhan said.

“Actually, they teach each other and learn from one another,” he went on. “I see it like working at a company, like being an engineer, but at the same time being a middle-schooler. They’re learning to solve all these engineering problems, and then they learn how to solve the programming problems.”

Values Added

The FIRST LEGO League, launched 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen and LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, now boasts 320,000 participants and 40,000 teams in 98 countries.

At the cornerstone of the program are a set of core values, through which participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.

According to the league website, those core values include discovery (exploring new skills and ideas), innovation (using creativity and persistence to solve problems), impact (applying what we learn to improve our world), inclusion (respecting each other and embracing our differences), teamwork (understanding that we are stronger when we work together), and fun (enjoying and celebrating what we do).

The student-designed robots are all different, taking myriad approaches to tackling similar challenges.

So the goal is more than learning robotics, engineering, and programming. But even the tasks themselves extend far beyond the robots. Each year, teams are mandated to research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and then develop a solution.

As part of this year’s Into Orbit theme, teams considered the challenges humans must overcome to travel around the solar system — such as extreme temperatures; lack of air, water, and food; waste disposal and recycling; loneliness and isolation; and the need for exercise — and research and present a project, not unlike at a science fair, that aims to solve one of those problems.

“With this year’s theme, they designed a project that helps astronauts in space travel improve their physical conditions and mental health, or it could be anything that supports astronauts,” Demirhan said, noting that his school’s two teams took on the problems of growing food in space and designing an effective trash compactor.

The competition itself centers around the LEGO robots designed and built by the students, he went on. “Each challenge needs to be solved by a robot which is running autonomously. So the students program the robots and make specific attachments that work with different challenges. They don’t only design these attachments, but design and write the programs.”

If the programming is off by the slightest margin, the robot will miss its target on the table — and miss out on critical points needed to post a high score and advance.

“With each one of these challenges, they encounter difficult areas with the programming,” Demirhan went on. “Some programs might work in a specific environment and might not work in a different environment, and they’re trying to write the best program that can work in many different conditions. For example, light could be a factor — robots have light sensors, and the amount of light in the practice room could be different than in competition. So the student needs to solve this challenge and write a really good, efficient program that can run in both these environments.”

For students inclined to this type of work, Henry said, it’s a fun way to learn to apply STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts while developing critical-thinking and team-building skills, and even soft skills like how to talk to the judges about their robots in an engaging way — yes, they’re judged on that, too.

“Not only do they have to build a robot to compete on the table, but they’re also being judged on a project, and they have to adhere to all the core values throughout the FIRST program,” he added. “It’s about communication skills and critical-thinking skills. It’s much more than just robots.”

Time to Shine

Through the FIRST LEGO League, Kamen and Kristiansen always intended for young people to discover the fun in science and technology but also develop in a positive way as people. Henry said he has seen exactly that.

“We had one kid that came through the program who was very shy, ate his lunch in the corner all by himself at his junior high school, but he came into high school and absolutely bloomed. He got into college, and now he’s an engineer with NASA. I’m telling you, if he doesn’t go to Mars, he’s going to be one of the engineers that gets us there.”

Other students in the program have gone on to non-science fields, like teaching, music, and the culinary arts, he continued, but the lessons they learned about solving problems and working with others are applicable to any field.

For those who do aspire to a career in engineering or robotics, however, the FIRST program does offer a leg up, Demirhan said, both in the college-application process — schools consider this valuable experience — and gaining career skills at an earlier age than most future engineers do.

“They’re all doing real-world engineering. Once they go to an engineering school, they’re seeing problems like these and learning how to solve them. So this is really a tiny engineering program that has massive applications. We’re teaching real-world problems and coming up with good solutions to them.”

In short, students are creating ideas, solving problems, and overcoming obstacles, all while gaining confidence in their abilities to positively use technology. To Henry, that’s an appealing mix.

“The STEM part is important, absolutely, but it’s more than just that,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve seen kids blossom in so many ways.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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